In the Classroom

State panel tries to understand why teachers leave their jobs

PHOTO: Allen Underwood, Courtesy of Wayne Township Schools
A teacher helps a student during classroom instruction at McClelland Elementary School.

About one in four Marion County teachers left their schools between 2013 and 2014, with an even higher number leaving from Indianapolis Public Schools.

However it’s not clear exactly why they leave, beyond general trends that suggest keeping teachers is hardest in districts that are more urban and have more poor students.

A 49-person panel created by state Superintendent Glenda Ritz to study the issue of recruiting and retaining teachers met Friday to dig into teacher turnover in the past few years. The group is expected to meet throughout the next few months to develop legislative proposals to keep more teachers coming back to teach the next year.

Ritz said she wanted action steps when the group is finished.

“This is not a study committee,” Ritz said. “Its purpose is to provide action.”

The panel is mostly educators, but also include two legislators: Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, and Rep. Randy Truitt, R-West Lafayette. Caitlin Beatson, with Indiana Department of Education, said the problem might be worse in inner cities and poor communities, but it also affects affluent areas some teachers prefer.

“We do have this retention problem even in what we consider to be our low-need schools,” Beatson said.

According to education department data, Indiana school districts brought back about 80 percent, or four out of five, of their teachers the next year in the same schools between 2012-13 and 2013-14. For Marion County, 73.6 percent of teachers returned to the same school in the second year, but IPS was far lower at 61.3 percent.

Beatson said a plan submitted by the state to the U.S. Department of Education found that, on average, 85 percent of teachers were retained from year to year in wealthier districts — a figure that would be considered high retention for high-poverty districts.

However, “retention” doesn’t just refer to teachers who either stay in teaching or leave the profession altogether — if a teacher switches districts or retires, that person counts against a district’s retention rate. Indiana’s 80.8 percent retention isn’t necessarily the best way to estimate the entire state’s teaching force, then, as it probably underestimates the number of teachers who are still teaching by not counting those who’ve simply switched schools or finished their careers.

Data from a study done by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that of public school teachers working in 2007-08, 84.5 percent stayed at the same school the next year nationwide, 7.6 percent moved to another school and 8 percent left the profession entirely.

Dan Goldhaber, with the University of Washington’s Center for Education Data and Research cautioned on Twitter that 100 percent retention isn’t necessarily best for schools. Students are better off if ineffective teachers leave, he said. Plus, he said, it matters where the teachers go specifically, too.

“What’s typical depends on whether you are talking about attrition from (schools), (districts), or the profession,” Goldhaber said in a tweet reacting to comments to the panel. “Each has different effects.”

Some of Indiana’s wealthiest communities, such as Zionsville and Carmel, only had retention rates from 2012-13 to 2013-14 at 84.7 percent and 83.7 percent of teachers staying, respectively. In Zionsville, 5 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and in Carmel, 10 percent qualify. They have the least poor children of all Indiana districts.

Department officials specified three main reasons why teachers might not stay at the same school from one year to the next: training, working conditions and pay and the public’s perception of teachers.

From 2012 to 2015, the state reported that teacher pay increased by between 8 and 9 percent for teachers with up to seven years of experience, but after that, pay generally fell for more experienced teachers, eventually plateauing for those with about 20 years in the classroom. The average salary for a first-year teacher was $37,044 in 2015, up from $33,530 in 2012. Inflation between 2012 and 2015 was just more than 4 percent nationally.

The potential causes for the turnover were not directly connected to the state data presented, department officials said, and came as the result of information collected by the department through four meetings with and a survey of a selection of teachers, administrators, parents and community members.

The group will continue to meet to put together proposals for legislators in November or December, Ritz said. During the last legislative session, bills promoting more training and mentoring for teachers and pay incentives to encourage teachers to complete them failed to gain traction early on and never made it to a vote.

Ritz said she believes teachers should be evaluated and held accountable for their performance, but changes needed to be made to make sure teachers were staying in schools, and not just schools that had students with fewer barriers to learning, such as coming from low-income families or requiring English-language or special education services.

“How do we ensure that we have quality educators even in our schools that have trouble retaining and recruiting teachers,” Ritz said. “Once you hire a teacher and once you know that they are good, you want to keep them.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.